Science, Bitches! | Issue 01

Science, Bitches! | Issue 01

Thanks, evolution!

Have you heard of herd mentality? It can manifest in a few different ways. You may notice some of these as you observe University of Otago students in their natural habitat.

(Cue David Attenborough voiceover.)

Approaching the St. Davidís lecture theatre around half past the hour, you can watch the juvenile Health Science students appearing. They usually travel in packs, for safety, like the great herds of wildebeest that migrate across the plains of Africa. Some may be picked off by older students, and forced to return to their dwellings to remove the egg from their new puffer jackets. Some may have succumbed to the fresher flu already. Some may have wandered off to fertilise the trees with last nightís Riverstone Sav.

But, guaranteed, when the lecture is due to start, hundreds will have successfully made it to the door of the theatre. And not one will open that door. But why, I hear you ask, would none of them check whether itís open?

The answer, my friends, is science.

Back in the day, it was a pretty good idea to follow the crowd. If everyone in your tribe ran in one direction and you ran in the other, you might be running right into an incoming lion. If no one eats those tasty-looking berries, it might be a good idea to avoid them. If no one opened the door, maybe there was something nasty behind it (physics, perhaps). Peer pressure, for our ancestors, was a matter of life or death. And in the Health Science world, things are not so different.

In some cases, however, conformity is less desirable. As much fun as couches are to burn, theyíre also heaps of fun to sit on. Yes, crates can be used to create all of your furniture, but no one said it would be comfortable. And a top tip for you first-time flatters: if you run out of couches, plastic chairs are not an appropriate replacement. You know that nasty smell of burning plastic? Thatís evolution helping us out again. Sweet.

Our senses arenít just for shits and giggles Ė everything we detect is telling us information about the world around us. If itís potentially helpful, weíll like it. If itís harmful, weíll be disgusted by it. Sugar tastes nice because it provides us with energy. Old milk tastes gross because itís full of bacteria that could infect us. Now, this is no excuse to replace spinach with chocolate in every meal; our diet has changed so much in the last hundred years or so, human evolution just canít keep up. But thatís another story for another day! The point is, burning plastic smells really bad, right? Thatís your nose watching out for you.

ďSmellĒ is what happens when tiny molecules get into your nose and bind to the receptors in there. So if you can smell something, itís releasing something into the atmosphere. Plastics donít smell of much at all, until you burn them. Sometimes all they release are some harmless hydrocarbons; but if itís halogenated plastic youíre burning, itís a whole different story. Unfortunately, when this happens dioxins are released into the air. Now, a quick Google of dioxins should be enough to freak you out, so all Iíll say is that you donít want them in your nose Ė or anywhere else.

So while conformity may have stopped your ancestors becoming lion tucker, sometimes itís good to follow your nose, not the herd. Thatís science, bitches!
This article first appeared in Issue 1, 2014.
Posted 6:57pm Sunday 23rd February 2014 by Elsie Jacobson.